This morning, pretty early (about 7AM), I took a trip with six other Americans and one Burmese young man on a trip to go to riding on elephants near the city of Mae Hong Son. It was a very successful trip, and rather thought provoking as well. I will attempt, in the time remaining to me before I have to get ready for Bible Study this evening, to convey both what happened and my own thoughts on the trip.
I must admit that I was not in the best of spirits when we arrived in what appeared to be a small island in the midst of creeks that had formed “wet crossings” over the road, because I was a bit motion sick from the sung-tow ride from Khun Yuam north to Mae Hong Son. On the way the Elephant farm we skirted along the west side of town, so I did not get to see it. Once I got on the elephants, though, the day markedly improved. I can understand, despite the fact that elephants are not a very stable fighting platform, why ancient militaries in India and among the Hellenistic empires, as well as Hannibal, used these animals in warfare as well as to show off their glory. An elephant isn’t going to go anywhere in a hurry (unless it is in a mad rush, and the elephant I rode, being even more gimpy than I am with an injured back right knee, was not in a hurry to go anywhere, though he was sweet-tempered and fond of snacking on leaves along the way).
Riding an elephant is like riding an SUV, only with a lot more lurching. You sit high off the ground, look down in a lordly fashion on all that is below you, and don’t really care about how many resources you use to look this awesome. The fact that the elephant ride was a pretty long one made it even better. Our ride even included a trip through a small river and by a long-necked Kayan village (more on that shortly). We took lots of photos, and I was a bit surprised at how pale I looked in the photos taken by BoBoZaw and the Grinnells, especially in contrast to the mahout and BoBoZaw.
After the elephant farm we were asked if we wanted to go to the “long-neck village” nearby. Despite some mixed feelings in the group as to the reason why the women of the Kayan of Mae Hong Son have long necks (we had a spirited discussion as to some of the urban legends attached to the practice, the fact that the practice seems to be growing in popularity because of Western tourists like ourselves, as well as the question as to whether the practice reflected the exploitation of women by men), we all ended up visiting the village (I paid for BoBoZaw). The village itself was mostly a glorified market where women played music, various mass-produced worthless trinkets and fairly low thread-count local cloth was made by women, where young men shot crossbows pretty impressively and where bored merchants at stalls used cell-phones and laptops, which greatly amused me (more proof, if any were needed, about the rapid Westernization of even very rural northern Thailand). I was also amused by the Kayan long-necked bobblehead dolls, where the springs on the necks served as the spring for the bobblehead dolls. I wonder if Mae Hong Son’s local soccer team has a free “Long-necked Bobblehead doll” giveaway night for their first 10,000 guests. It could happen.
My own thoughts of visiting the Kayan village are somewhat mixed. The people in the village are illegal—though some of them know a little Thai and plenty of them know some English (presumably most of the visitors there are farang, though few were visiting today and there were even some Thai villages). I pondered the fact that the Thai tourists would probably visit Mae Hong Son for the same reason that Americans would visit the Appalachian mountains—the countryside is beautiful, it is a fairly cheap place to visit, and there is a certain “redneck freakshow” element to the long-necked women, though I have to say that some of the women, particularly those with only a few rings, actually looked somewhat elegant. I must admit I was a bit disconcerted with those older women who wore a lot of rings on their necks. It is difficult to judge whether the positive effects of having trade replace government charity outweigh the nagging feeling that a lot of the money doesn’t filter down to the common people and that the Kayan (along with the rest of the Karen refugees in this part of Thailand) would be a whole lot better off if they either were integrated into Thai society rather than being in refugee camps for generations (so far, over 20 years) or were able to have an independent homeland carved out of Burma to return to.
After visiting the village, which was named Huay Sua Thao, the eight of us went to the Fern Restaurant in Mae Hong Son, which is an exceptionally pretty town around a beautiful lake. Mae Hong Son is a small town, and the provincial capital of the province of the same name (which also includes Mae Sariang and Khun Yuam), and it is clearly popular with expatriates. It has a lovely climate, beautiful buildings (mostly Shan-style construction), along with a friendly populace. We decided to eat “family style” with all eight of us ordering a different food, along with a coconut milk soup as an appetizer. All of the meals were very excellent—I ordered the fried chicken with herbs, and managed to order seconds, and even enjoyed the spicy sauce that came with it, though I am not usually someone who enjoys sauces. The instrumental music, including two different versions of “And I Love Her” by the Beatles, along with songs by Bryan Adams, Simon & Garfunkel, and Take That, among others, clearly demonstrated that this restaurant was meant to appeal to farang [Westerners], which it did.
After that we had a photo stop at a very pretty overlook spot, where the road overlooked an amazing valley without a house to be seen (aside from the small buildling next to the road and overlook), with ranges upon ranges of beautiful green mountains with a deep valley in between. It was amazing, and we took plenty of photos of it, along with ourselves in the small building at the overlook, whose floor construction did not inspire widespread confidence). After that we returned back before 3PM. It was a day well spent, and I was glad to have gone. It gave me a better appreciation of both the human and natural situation here in Mae Hong Son, and also plenty of food for thought.